January 8, 2009

Beautiful overhangs

I WAS LOOKING at a profile of a Pearson Vanguard the other day and thinking how beautiful she was. That man Philip Rhodes could design a mean sheerline. Combined with low freeboard, Vanguards still look gorgeous nearly 50 years after they were built.

The bow, in particular, has a cocky sheer and a rounded profile that seems just right for a seagoing boat, while the stern rises just enough to complement the wonderful curve that sweeps from fore to aft as befits a creature intended to live among waves.

By today’s standards, the overhangs are excessive. The bow and the stern overhangs measure more than 10 feet combined on a boat only 32 feet 7 inches overall. But today’s boats have traded beauty for utility and interior space, which is a compromise not necessarily for the better.

Designers tell us that overhangs enable a boat to go faster. They increase the boat’s waterline length as she heels, and waterline length, as we all know, is the major factor affecting the maximum speed of displacement boats. I have never been convinced of this alleged benefit. Not for any good mathematical reason but just because I can’t believe it makes enough difference to matter. I’m also suspicious about the claim that heeling adds to waterline length. Some boats roll buoyantly upward, out of the water, as they heel. I bet they don’t add much to the wetted waterline. And besides, when you’re running downwind, and not heeling, there is no gain in waterline length at all.

I personally don’t think the Vanguard’s overhangs are excessive. Another famous and very handsome design of that period, the Camper & Nicholson 32, had overhangs totaling 9 feet. Furthermore, L. Francis Herreshoff, the great master, designed what he called “sensible cruising boats” with overhangs very much like the Vanguard’s. His famous H-28 ketch, at 28 feet overall, had a waterline of just over 23 feet.

There’s no doubt, though, that very long overhangs are dangerous at sea. They’re very elegant, but on smaller boats they’re suited only to sheltered waters. They cause pounding at the bow and slamming at the stern.

A friend of mine once took his 30-Square Meter to sea. This was a narrow-gutted formula racing class with very long overhangs, because the goal for naval architects was to design the fastest sailboat you could build with a maximum of 30 square meters of sail area. My friend got caught in quartering seas and found that the leverage afforded by the long stern overhang caused each overtaking swell to spin the boat almost broadside on, into a dangerous broach. Those 30 Squares were gorgeous to look at, and extremely satisfying to sail to weather, but they were lousy seaboats in bad weather.

The Vanguard was designed in the days when the Cruising Club of America (CCA) rule applied, of course. When that rule was superseded by the International Offshore Rule (IOR), the rear ends of racing boats suddenly changed from generous, flowing, well-rounded buttocks to mean and tight pinched-in haunches, often with unsightly reverse-sheer transoms. This did nothing for seaworthiness or looks. It just helped a boat get a better handicap under the IOR formula.

Manufacturers of cruising boats, like lemmings flowing over the cliff, followed the style of the racers, of course, in the hope that prospective clients would be impressed. So we had a very ugly production run of racer/cruisers in the 1970s and early ’80s. Happily, though, there were the occasional standouts, like Pearson and Philip Rhodes.

I take my hat off to them every time I see a Vanguard.

Today’s Thought
Perhaps the greatest difference between the beautiful yacht and the plain one is the way their crews treat them, for the crew of the beautiful yacht usually gives her tender loving care. —L. Francis Herreshoff.

Overheard at the yacht club bar:
“My dirty bottom is really wreaking havoc with my performance.”
“Yeah, just imagine what that would do to a boat.”

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